Low-cost benefits help Hertfordshire County Council balance budget

Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) has been on a drive to create a benefits package that attracts and retains talented staff, but has had to overcome a number of challenges in the process.

Hertfordshire County Council employer profile

Like many public-sector employers, the council has had to work with limited resources after a number of budget cuts in recent years.

This is against the backdrop of an ageing and increasing population in the county with complex needs, which are putting extra demands on the council’s services.

Emily Austin, HR pay and reward manager at HCC, says: “There’s a dilemma about what services we can offer and how we try to achieve savings while still delivering them. The principle is effectively doing more with less.”

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Austin recognised that, with little money to spend on benefits, the council had to look at different ways of attracting and motivating employees. This led to the creation of its Healthy Herts initiative, which was introduced in early 2012 and aims to encourage staff to become healthier by taking part in sports and social club activities. 

The voluntary scheme features lunchtime walking groups, yoga and pilates classes, and a workplace choir. A calendar of events is promoted to staff through a newsletter and the council’s intranet site. Events include awareness weeks on health topics such as bowel cancer, mental health and healthy hearts. 

Austin says: “We are saying, ‘what can we do that will make people want to work here, perform well, be happy, be fit?’, but things that perhaps don’t mean us throwing a lot of money at it, because that’s something we don’t have.”

Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) stag symbol

Austin believes the scheme has boosted employee engagement and has also helped to reduce sickness absence, which has fallen from an average of 9.5 days per employee in 2009 to 6.7 days in 2013. Employee engagement figures, which measure how engaged the workforce is, have also improved, up from 49% in 2011 to 60% in 2012, and stand at about 63% for 2013.

HCC has also introduced a voluntary benefits scheme, Herts Rewards. The online discount portal, provided by Reward Gateway, was launched in September 2013. The scheme packages all the council’s benefits under one brand, helping to promote its attractiveness as an employer. “Before this, everything was done locally and managed on quite a small scale, and we didn’t do some of the cinema or shopping discounts, so for us that’s probably had the most impact,” says Austin.

“We’re at 20% take-up already [as at November 2013]. The feedback we’ve had has been really positive, in terms of employees being really keen. And they have been talking about it. We know that if we do something good, employees talk about it.”

HCC’s benefits package is administered in-house by Austin’s team, so the council can be sure that the rewards it offers are relevant to its workforce. “We do have some contracts with providers to deliver the childcare vouchers, the employee assistance programme and the independent financial advice, for example, but my team manages all of those contracts,” says Austin.

Staff strikes

Staff strikes are another challenge Austin and her team have had to deal with this year. As at many councils, the industrial action at HCC resulted from staff objecting to changes to their pension scheme.

In November 2013, Hertfordshire firefighters took part in national strike action over proposed reforms to their pension scheme. The changes include a move to career average pensions from final salary schemes, and a cap on employers’ pension costs. 

Other local government employees will see their pensions overhauled in 2014. The Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) will introduce a career average plan for employees to replace their current final salary scheme, from 1 April 2014.

This has involved Austin and her team working to ensure that employees are fully aware of, and understand the changes to, one of the council’s most valued benefits. “The next six months, for us, will be a big focus on pensions,” says Austin.

“We have a statutory duty to promote some of the changes, but we want to make sure employees stay engaged in that pension scheme and understand that although it is changing, for a large majority of staff it is going to be a positive change.”

Communicating the package

Austin is now focused on communicating HCC’s benefits package to its employees, whose roles range from librarians and care home workers to school crossing patrols. This is why accessibility is key to the package, which also includes leave entitlement, childcare vouchers and shopping discounts.

Staff can access benefits via their home computers, tablets or mobile phones, and HCC’s reward team complements this with newsletters, emails, poster campaigns, payroll messages and roadshows. “It’s a real mixed approach to try to get out as much as we can,” says Austin. “But we do always know it’s harder to communicate to those hard-to-reach employees: someone in a care home who doesn’t get an email, who isn’t sitting in front of a computer day to day.”

Hertfordshire County Council's Council Chamber

The council’s communication drive has boosted staff awareness. Its 2013 staff survey showed that employees’ rating of the question ‘how do you value the total reward package?’ had improved by 14 percentage points, which Austin attributes to the launch of Herts Rewards.

A final challenge for Austin is to work out how best to communicate with employees working at HCC’s newly-created trading companies, to which they were transferred under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) (Tupe). HCC set up the trading companies in September 2013, to allow its traded functions to become more commercial and competitive. 

“One challenge is, how do we create an offering that we can roll out to those groups as well?” says Austin. “In five years’ time, the workforce is going to look very different from now, so how do we offer it? Volunteers are not on our payroll, so how do we do that? My challenge is thinking what the workforce is going to look like, what will they want, what can we offer them, and how do we offer it?”

The council’s changing employee demographic also calls for a different reward focus. “We know we’re going to have an older workforce, but at the same time we’re trying to focus on the younger people,” says Austin.

“So we have a strategy to attract more young people, and we’ve been looking at what they want from our organisation. It’s things like much more instant feedback, and benefits that are relevant to them, which hopefully Herts Rewards will address, but it’s also looking at how we do that, how we look to the future and what we can deliver.”

Business objectives

Hertfordshire County Council’s corporate plan includes key priorities for the county and focuses on offering residents of Hertfordshire:

  • Opportunity to thrive
  • Opportunity to prosper
  • Opportunity to be healthy and safe
  • Opportunity to take part

Hertfordshire County Council at a glance

Hertfordshire County Council is the local authority for Hertfordshire, which has a population of about one million residents. HCC delivers services for people who live, work and travel in the county.

Its services include schools, libraries and fire stations, as well as services for older and vulnerable people.

Established in 1889, HCC operates at four main sites: County Hall in Hertford, and offices in Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead and Welwyn Garden City.

Of HCC’s 31,000 employees, 22,600 work in schools. Including school and other council staff, 58% work part time, and 84% are female.

Career history: Emily Austin

Emily Austin Hertfordshire County Council

Emily Austin began her career at Hertfordshire County Council  as an HR graduate trainee 11 years ago. Since then, she has worked her way up to her current post of HR pay and reward manager.

She has a wide role, including responsibility for employee benefits. In addition to voluntary benefits, she looks after HCC’s lease car scheme and carries out work around job evaluation and the council’s pay practice.

One of Austin’s proudest career moments so far has been the introduction of performance-related pay increments. In April 2012, HCC revised its working terms and conditions and changed its pay practice from time-served to pay awards linked to individual performance.

“I introduced that in terms of developing the policies, developing the systems, and actually embedding that and getting it live,” she says. ”That went live last year, and was a really big achievement for me.”

Austin and the reward team introduced an online voluntary benefits portal in September 2013 with Reward Gateway, which offers employees discounts at various outlets, including local gyms.

“That’s been really positive with employees,” says Austin. “We did our staff survey a few months ago, and one thing it showed is that the ratings employees gave to ‘how do you value the total reward package?’ has increased by 14 percentage points, basically on the back of this introduction. That’s something I’m really pleased about.”

Case study: Siobhan Munnelly, consultant social worker

Siobhan Munnelly Hertfordshire County Council

Consultant social worker Siobhan Munnelly has been with Hertfordshire County Council since June 2013. She works in a team that delivers social work services to children and families.

Since joining the council, Munnelly has found that it offers varied training and development opportunities and encourages career progression.

“I feel valued in that my career aspirations have been recognised and considered and resulted in a promotion,” she says. “This has instilled a sense of being valued within the organisation. This is coupled with the fact that there are such extensive and varied training opportunities available. This ensures that practitioners are as up to date as possible with current research and literature, so as to best meet the individual needs of children and the families we work with.”

Munnelly’s role requires extensive travel around Hertfordshire, so she values the lease car scheme the council offers to its business drivers. “The lease car scheme has been an incentive because it guarantees that I have a reliable and new car, and takes the hassle out of having to sort out tax, servicing and insurance,” she says.

Munnelly also values HCC’s annual leave entitlement. “The day-to-day front-line experience of working with some of the most vulnerable children and families in society can often prove very distressing, emotive and challenging,” she says. “I think it is essential to strike a work-life balance and ensure that time is taken to simply have a break and rejuvenate.”

Hertfordshire County Council’s benefits


  • Final salary scheme for all employees, with local government terms and conditions.
  • Employer contribution is 20.6%; employee contribution varies between 5.5% and 7.5%.


  • Lease car scheme for business drivers, open to every employee who does more than 2,250 business miles a year.


  • Performance-related pay awards.

Voluntary benefits

  • Online discounts portal, Herts Rewards.
  • Gym discounts.
  • Employee assistance programme.
  • Independent financial advice.
  • Private medical insurance.
  • Dental care.
  • Eye care.
  • Salary sacrifice bikes-for-work scheme.
  • Season ticket loans.
  • Sports and social clubs arranged through Healthy Herts initiative.

Work-life balance

  • Childcare vouchers.
  • Flexi-time depending on service needs.
  • Maternity, paternity and family leave.
  • Emergency leave.
  • Annual leave, depending on employee grade and length of service, but ranges from 24 days to 38 days.

Other benefits

  • Long-service awards given after 20, 30 and 40 years’ service.
  • Staff restaurants and Costa coffee outlets at main sites.